At TIFF: Brighton Rock Extends the Graham Greene Adaptation Curse
In one of his sidelong memoirs, Graham Greene suggested that not only was the bullying he suffered as an English schoolboy the main reason that he became a writer, but that the character of Pinkie Brown, the anti-hero of his early novel Brighton Rock, was based on the scruffy ringleader who sent him running for the typewriter in the first place. Perhaps it's a testament to just how much Greene loathed the punk he was modeled on that Pinkie is perhaps the least redeemed character in the author's canon.
It's also a testament to Greene's commitment to his most enduring themes -- the role of religion and morality in a world where good and evil exist in a fluctuating balance -- that even the much-loathed Pinkie was allowed to embody and exemplify them. Even in an "entertainment" like Brighton Rock (Greene considered his books either entertainments or literary novels), his core concerns came through; it's no wonder that he later reconsidered its place on his ledger.
And yet although Greene had a close relationship with Hollywood, adapting his own films and penning original screenplays, with Hollywood often finding his books so nice they adapt them twice (Rowan Joffe's version of Brighton Rock, which premieres tonight at TIFF, is indeed the second), his books do not translate as easily to the screen as one would think they would. Such is the case, at least, with this latest version of Brighton Rock, which moves the setting of the story of a sociopathic gangleader's desperate downward spiral from the 1930s to 1964, but can't avoid the source material's rather classic dilemma: It's more literary -- and therefore more elusive -- than it seems.
Joffe, who wrote the screenplay for The American before he completed this one, is making his directorial debut, and if nothing else it looks like he had fun. This is a full-on trenchcoat and fedora affair: switchblades jump regularly from their sheaths and shadows from the corners; in the shore town of Brighton Joffe has found a location with all the seedy grandeur Greene could hope for. After a misunderstanding that leads to murder of a gang leader in the pulpy opening sequence, Pinkie (Sam Riley, memorable as Ian Curtis in Control and yet more memorable here as a boyishly menacing splicing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Chris Noth), an upstart in the ranks, senses an opportunity. When a flashy retaliation involves a witness, a local waitress at a café run by the redoubtable Ida (Helen Mirren) named Rose (Andrea Riseborough), Pinkie sets out to contain the threat she poses: He marries her.
Rose is one of Greene's maddening vessels of all that is good but also quite self-destructively stupid in the world, and her besotted loyalty to the horrid but dead sexy Pinkie is the film's most successful dynamic. Joffe homes in on Greene's penchant for the cinematic in his descriptions and, as with a tense, gorgeous, pivotal scene between Pinkie and Rose (he's bad, she's good, but they're all of a blighted, human piece; the Catholic angle feels wedged in here) that takes place on a dramatic cliff's edge, brings them to breathtaking fruition. In general Joffe loads up on style and flash -- on the raw elements of entertainment -- at the Graham Greene buffet with this gorgeous-looking and yet unsatisfying film. It's his pacing, plotting, and thematic convictions that he lacks.